Farmer sui­cides ris­ing in In­dia as cli­mate warms, study shows

Farm­ers have long been the heart and soul of In­dia

Kuwait Times - - LOCAL -

When Rani’s hus­band died by drink­ing pes­ti­cide, he left the fam­ily in debt. But even if they could pay off the loans, Rani said their farm­ing days are over. “There are no rains,” said the 44-yearold woman from drought-stricken Tamil Nadu, one of hun­dreds of farm­ers protest­ing in the cap­i­tal for more gov­ern­ment sup­port. “Even for drink­ing, we get water only once in 10 days.”

A study sug­gests In­dia will see more such tragedies as cli­mate change brings hot­ter tem­per­a­tures that dam­age crops and ex­ac­er­bate drought. For ev­ery 1 de­gree Cel­sius (1.8 de­grees Fahrenheit) of warm­ing above 20 de­grees C (68 de­grees F) dur­ing the grow­ing sea­son in In­dia, there are 67 more sui­cides on av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to the find­ings pub­lished Mon­day in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­emy of Sciences, or PNAS.

The mes­sage “is that farm­ing is an in­her­ently risky oc­cu­pa­tion, with an­nual in­comes of­ten held hostage to the weather, and it’s get­ting riskier in the era of cli­mate change,” said Vikram Pa­tel, an In­dian psy­chi­a­trist and men­tal health ex­pert with Har­vard Med­i­cal School in Bos­ton who was not in­volved in the study. Ex­perts said the study’s find­ings should raise alarms, es­pe­cially with In­dia’s av­er­age tem­per­a­tures ex­pected to rise an­other 3 de­grees C (5.4 de­grees F) by 2050. That will bring more er­ratic weather events, more drought and stronger storms. “Any­thing that will af­fect oc­cu­pa­tional sta­bil­ity is go­ing to af­fect farm­ers’ men­tal health,” Pa­tel said.

Many fac­tors

Farm­ing has al­ways been con­sid­ered a high-risk pro­fes­sion, and a sin­gle dam­aged harvest can drive some to des­per­a­tion. With agri­cul­ture sup­port­ing more than half of In­dia’s 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple, farm­ers have long been seen as the heart and soul of the coun­try. But they’ve also seen their eco­nomic clout di­min­ish over the last three decades. Once ac­count­ing for a third of In­dia’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, they now con­trib­ute only 15 per­cent of In­dia’s $2.26 bil­lion econ­omy.

There are many fac­tors that can con­trib­ute to sui­cide, in­clud­ing poor crop yields, fi­nan­cial dev­as­ta­tion or debt, ac­cess to easy meth­ods of self-harm, or a lack of com­mu­nity sup­port. In In­dia, many farm­ers will drink toxic pes­ti­cides as a way out of back­break­ing debt, with the gov­ern­ment in some cases guar­an­tee­ing mone­tary aid to their sur­viv­ing fam­i­lies. That pro­vides a per­verse in­cen­tive for sui­cide, “re­ward­ing peo­ple who end their lives by pay­ing fam­ily com­pen­sa­tion, but only if they die,” Pa­tel said.

“We may not be able to stop the world from warm­ing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do some­thing to ad­dress sui­cide,” in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing more fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity and pay­ing more at­ten­tion to men­tal health, he said. The study re­leased Mon­day should make those ef­forts even more ur­gent, ex­perts said. “It pro­vides ev­i­dence for a causal path­way - from un­fa­vor­able weather to poor crop yields to ru­ral mis­ery to in­creased sui­cide,” said Dr. Howard Frumkin, a Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton en­vi­ron­men­tal health pro­fes­sor who was not in­volved in the study. “With cli­mate change bring­ing in­creas­ingly chaotic weather in many places, this causal path­way is likely to in­ten­sify.”

In­dia’s farms are al­ready hit reg­u­larly by strong storms, ex­treme drought, heat waves and other ex­treme weather events. Some still rely on rain­fall rather than ir­ri­ga­tion to water their crops. Sci­en­tists have shown that ex­treme weather events are al­ready in­creas­ing as the planet warms. For the study, re­searcher Tamma Car­leton looked at sui­cide data from In­dia’s Na­tional Crime Records Bureau be­tween 1967 and 2013, along with data on agri­cul­tural crop yields and on tem­per­a­ture change.

“I es­ti­mate that warm­ing tem­per­a­ture trends over the last three decades have al­ready been responsible for over 59,000 sui­cides through­out In­dia,” writes Car­leton, who stud­ies agri­cul­ture and re­source eco­nomics at the Univer­sity of California, Berke­ley. In other words, warmer tem­per­a­tures were a fac­tor ac­count­ing for a 6.8 per­cent in­crease in sui­cides, the study says.

She noted lim­i­ta­tions in the study, in­clud­ing an in­abil­ity to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween urban and ru­ral sui­cides be­cause the crime records bureau only be­gan clas­si­fy­ing farmer sui­cides in 1995. Other ex­perts also noted that the ac­tual num­ber of sui­cides may be higher than the crime data­base counted, but said these con­cerns were un­likely to un­der­mine the study’s core find­ings. In­dia’s farm­ers, of­ten com­plain­ing about being ig­nored, hold fre­quent protests to de­mand bet­ter crop prices, more loan waivers and even water de­liv­ery sys­tems to guar­an­tee ir­ri­ga­tion dur­ing dry spells. Some­times, they stage sit-ins or dump truck­loads of veg­eta­bles onto high­ways to dis­rupt traf­fic.

For the past month, hun­dreds of farm­ers - some car­ry­ing hu­man skulls they say are from farm­ers who com­mit­ted sui­cide in the drought-stricken south­ern state of Tamil Nadu - have been stag­ing what they say will be a 100-day protest in a cen­tral New Delhi square to “pre­vent the sui­cide of farm­ers who feed the na­tion.”

The gov­ern­ment re­cently in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to sub­si­dize crop in­sur­ance aimed at re­duc­ing some of the fi­nan­cial risk faced by farm­ers who take out loans to buy seeds and agro­chem­i­cals. But ex­perts note there is al­most no dis­cus­sion about men­tal health as it re­lates to In­dia’s farm­ing com­mu­nity. Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Radha Mo­han Singh told law­mak­ers Thurs­day there were 11,458 farmer sui­cides in 2016 - the low­est num­ber in two decades. It was also a year of mild tem­per­a­tures and nor­mal mon­soon rains.

He ac­knowl­edged that the num­ber of farmer sui­cides had gone up by about 9 per­cent in each of the pre­vi­ous two years, both of which were marred by drought. The crime bureau found that 58 per­cent of the 12,602 farmer sui­cides in 2015 were driven by bank­ruptcy, in­debt­ed­ness and other farm­ing-re­lated is­sues. Most of the vic­tims were mar­ginal cul­ti­va­tors or small-farm hold­ers with less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land.

“Sui­cides oc­cur due to ex­treme eco­nomic de­spair,” said MS Swami­nathan, a ge­neti­cist whose work on high-yield rice and wheat crops helped drive In­dia’s Green Revo­lu­tion in the 1960s. His research in the late 1980s found that a 1 de­gree C (1.8 de­gree F) tem­per­a­ture rise re­duced a crop’s du­ra­tion by about one week, caus­ing losses in the over­all weight of harvest.

His foun­da­tion works to find farm­ing so­lu­tions not only to ris­ing heat, but also to drought or salin­ity from coastal sea rise. Given these grow­ing risks, he said, gov­ern­ment pol­icy has a large role to play. “Suit­able crop in­sur­ance and a prompt com­pen­sa­tion of losses due to cli­mate-re­lated fac­tors will help to avoid a sense of hope­less­ness that leads to sui­cide,” Swami­nathan said. — AP

GAUHATI: In this Feb. 1, 2017 file photo, an In­dian farmer works in his paddy field in Roja May­ong vil­lage. — AP

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